Regulus was not sure which was worse – hiding out in Liam’s room to avoid being monitored by the rest of the family or pushing himself to make small talk about nothing in the evening after Liam arrived home. The former he understood as a precautionary measure; the Merrics knew that he was a Death Eater, though they did not know the incriminating details. He was not the type of person to reach out to near-strangers anyway, but the distance was still a constant reminder of his choices. His interactions with Liam only made this more painful and he wished that he could find a way to break through their conversational wall. Not only did Liam have information about Donnelly, but Regulus was also slowly losing hope of restoring their relationship.
Aislinn, to her credit, was doing the best she could to break the tension. It was refreshing to be around someone who treated him like a human being. Aislinn came to the house nightly for dinner, always bringing stories about the children she taught at school. Her presence broke the monotony of his day and allowed him to relax, even in the presence of more wary family members.
He chose to keep to the house for several reasons. Primarily, he was unfamiliar with the area and did not want to chance getting lost or running into the wrong person. Aislinn and Liam had told him enough about the undercurrents of magic in County Clare for him to realize that it might be a good idea to lay low. It was also entirely possible that Voldemort had dispatched other Death Eaters to keep an eye on him. The more Regulus connected the dots in his mind, the more he realized just how dangerous a force the Dark Lord was.
Christmas was drawing closer and he had spent the afternoon writing a letter to his mother, explaining that he would spend the holidays with Liam’s family. She would be angry, but she would live. He already had his inheritance so she did not have much recourse; he could make his own decisions with the family fortune, and she could not make him come home.
His stretched as he checked the time: two o’clock. Today was Aislinn’s last day of school before the holiday and she had agreed to take him shopping so that he could pick up suitable gifts for her parents, but was not due to the house until three.
I can’t hide out up here forever, he thought to himself. It was time to venture out of his self-imposed cloister.
The kitchen had become a vault of treats over the past four days. Regulus swiped a chocolate biscuit and sat at the table to watch the steady stream of snowfall in the backyard.
“I saw that,” Kate called from the hallway.
Regulus dropped the biscuit. “I’m sorry, I thought they were free for the taking.”
She laughed. “Well, they’re best when they’re hot, and you’re the only one who’ll get to enjoy them that way, so eat up. I was wondering if you’d venture downstairs when I took them out.”
“Thanks.” He took another bite.
Kate sat down at the table. “I’ll be frank with you. Liam and Aislinn have told us a great deal about their past with you. We want to try to help, but we want to make sure that it isn’t going to cost us either.”
He started pulverizing what was left of the biscuit. “I would never, I mean, I promise, I’m not planning to do anything that would hurt any of you, I’m just trying to be honest …”
“I understand, I think,” Kate replied. “Really, it will just take time. What are you working on upstairs anyway?”
“So far, just taking care of business back home and making sure no one misses me,” he explained. “I have to give myself sufficient time to process what I want to do, now that I’ve realized how deep I’m in, and I’ve got to come back with something to give You-Know-Who, er, at least, I think you know, the evil wizard who is behind everything. He’s already so cunning that I need to be careful that what I give him won’t make him more powerful than he already is.”
Kate took a deep breath and seemed to be examining him carefully before she continued.
“I’m going to ask you the same question I asked Liam a few months back,” she began. “Are you here because it is going to help or are you here because you are running away?”
He narrowed his eyebrows and sat up a little straighter before he answered, “Er, I haven’t really thought about it that way. I mean, I’m here because he sent me here, but that has turned into something different since I don’t really want to serve him anymore. I can’t fulfil my original mission, but I can’t come back empty-handed either. It doesn’t do anyone any good if I just out myself to him. I figure, I might as well try to make a difference and then get killed rather than just get killed.”
“Is there an option where you don’t get killed?”
He shook his head. “Not that I can figure. But, I have to do something. I don’t think I’m running anymore.”
“So you’re here because you want to fight.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I suppose I am.”
“Why don’t you, then?” Kate pressed.
“I don’t even know where to start, it’s so big.” He folded his arms and leaned toward her against the table. “There’s so much I need to know, so much I need to do, so much I wish I could do that I can’t. If I only have so much time left, I need to figure out the best way to spend it.”
“I’m going to give you a suggestion, and you may not like it, but instead of hiding out in the house, I’d say to start with Liam,” offered Kate. “I think that if you reconcile with him first, the rest will fall into place.”
Regulus did not respond right away. Of course, he had considered this, but had initially decided that spending time apart might help Liam process everything more effectively. Liam’s knowledge was the key to the entire operation, and they needed to be on good terms before Liam would willingly confide in him again. Showing up at the shipyard seemed like an awful intrusion into Liam’s privacy; still, perhaps some time working physically together would do them some good.
He replied hesitantly, “I’m supposed to go shopping with Aislinn …”
Kate countered. “Aislinn can wait. There’s an old car in the garage that you can take. Do you know how to get to Ballyvaughan?”
Regulus shook his head. “No, but, I think I’d have more luck figuring out how to get there than driving your car. I don’t know how to drive. I can just Apparate, if you can tell me how to get to where Liam is from the pub near the harbour.”
Kate’s directions were good and Regulus arrived at the docks to see Liam and Michael hauling equipment from one of the ships. He stared at the vessel; he had never been on a ship before. The masts were devoid of sails, but it still looked menacing, dripping from the snow shower. He wasn’t sure if he could manage to stand upright on it if he tried.
Liam looked at him suddenly and Regulus waved.
“Ahoy there, you look like you’re earning your keep,” Regulus called.
“Hi, I thought you were supposed to be shopping with Aislinn,” Liam called back. He set his load down and trotted down the ramp to the dock.
“Change of plans, your mother is quite convincing,” replied Regulus. “Do you lot need any help?”
“I’m not much good sitting up in your room, am I? I have two hands, two legs, and a somewhat strong back.”
Liam shrugged. “I mean, if that’s what you want to do, I’m sure we can find you something. You can start by helping us with the equipment. We’re getting this ship ready for dry dock, a last minute addition for the winter. Hey Pa!”
Michael called back, “What?”
“What should I get Regulus doing?”
Michael squinted at them and shrugged. “Er, whatever you’re working on, I guess.”
“Helpful,” Liam muttered. “All right, just follow my lead.”
It was a lot of hauling and a lot of walking. Regulus grew tired quickly, not having done real physical activity for months, but found that working with his hands was somewhat satisfying. He lifted, hauled, and placed … lifted, hauled, and placed … every once in a while taking an extra step to keep balance. Liam moved on the ship as a natural. Regulus stumbled forward and backward every time it moved.
“You have to move with the waves,” offered Liam.
Liam put his load down and pointed outward. “The ship is going to move every time the waves move. Just feel the natural rhythm and match it.”
“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
Liam shook his head. “Put the load down, just stand and feel it.”
Regulus did so, and tried to stand without grabbing something. The ship did go up and down, but he started to feel somewhat of a pattern. It still bothered his stomach, but he felt like he might be able to walk.
“That’s it, see? Now you can anticipate what it’s going to do. It’ll make walking a lot easier,” Liam explained, shouldering his load again.
“Right,” Regulus replied. He had hoped that doing some work together might liven things up a bit. They were wasting time; he wanted to start going somewhere. How long would it take?
“Oh, I left a bucket on the ramp, can you grab it for me?” called Liam from across the deck.
“Yeah, no problem,” Regulus agreed. He whipped around faster than he anticipated, lost his footing, and stumbled toward the ramp, praying he would catch himself on the side of the boat, but losing his positioning entirely. He plunged a few feet into the water.
Cold! That was all his mind could process. Knives! Little knives pricking all over!
He treaded up to the surface of the water and fumbled about for something to grasp, finally grabbing hold of a thick line coming out the side of the ship.
“Regulus!” Liam had hurried to the side of the ship. “Dear heaven, are you all right?”
Regulus kicked and hung on until his knuckles were white and he could feel his muscles cramping. “I think so, I’m so cold!”
“Yes, that water is about ten degrees. Can you swim? If you can get down the ship toward the shore, I can probably pull you out, but I don’t want to try anything else since we’re in public.”
Regulus did not want to swim, but he did want to get out. He could feel his extremities going numb and knew that he would not be able to make it to shore if he did not start moving.
“Ye – ah I, th-think I c-c-can do that,” he chattered. He moved himself along the boat slowly, trying not to think about what might be swimming beneath his feet. Liam walked down the ramp along with him, encouraging him along the way until at last he let go of the side, swam the distance to the ramp, and was hauled out of the water by Liam and Michael. They helped him indoors where he changed into one of their company uniforms and sat wrapped in blankets, drinking tea until he was warm.
“Whoops,” he offered, smiling slowly.
Liam chuckled. “Whoops is right. Isn’t this more fun than shopping with my sister?”
“Questionable. If I get hypothermia, I’m blaming you.”
“That’s fair,” Liam agreed. “Though I did give you some coaching in how to walk on the ship. I never once said to stumble across the deck like a madman. And you volunteered.”
“Eh, I’d still say it’s valid.”
Liam stretched out on a nearby sofa. “So, I’m guessing you probably don’t want to come back and do this again tomorrow?”
Regulus laughed. “Er, yeah, that would be a no, but I will if you need the help.”
“Nah, I was thinking of something more interesting,” Liam explained. “I think it’s time that we started comparing notes. What do you say?”
“Well, I have nothing better to do. Works for me.”
Kate knew her son, and the suggestion for Regulus to help out at the docks had been a good one. Liam mused about potential plotting between his sister and mother, but then resolved that they might have acted separately. Still, he felt that kinship had returned between Regulus and himself, and he wanted to capitalize on it.
Regulus had told them about his mission to find out more about Desmond Donnelly, but he appeared to have no idea that Desmond was linked to the Merric family. Liam decided that taking him to his grandfather’s house was probably the best way to explain the link.
The car sputtered as they went on to Fanore, the sound increasing somewhat every time they inched up a hill. Liam looked forward to Apparating the next time, once Regulus knew where he was going.
“Just a few more hills here. Feeling sick at all?” asked Liam.
Regulus shook his head. “I’m happy to be on land, not feeling the least bit sick.”
“Excellent. There’s the house.”
They pulled up in front of what was better described as a cottage. His mother and father had kept it in good shape, but had always been averse to living there. Liam now understood why, but still wondered why they had kept it that way for so long. He showed Regulus through the tiny dwelling, from the kitchen and living room area on the main floor to the three bedrooms upstairs, all of which were currently serving as storage space. Regulus paid mild attention, but Liam knew that he had to be confused as to why they were there. They ended the tour at the kitchen table, upon which sat the papers Aislinn had been sorting through when they discovered the link from Callum to Desmond.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m showing you all of this,” Liam stated.
“I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t,” admitted Regulus.
Liam leaned against the table. “Remember how we always used to ponder about how I ended up in Slytherin?”
“Well, I have an answer. My grandfather, the man who built this house, he was a wizard. His name was Callum Donnelly.”
Regulus’ eyes grew wide. “Donnelly? Donnelly. You mean to say that Voldemort is looking for … well, not your grandfather, you just said his name was Callum.”
Liam nodded. “That’s right. You’re looking for his older cousin, Desmond; the reason my grandfather turned his back on the Wizarding world. Funny how things work out, isn’t it?”
Regulus had sunk down into one of the kitchen chairs and started examining the papers on the table, quickly finding the one that linked the two deceased men.
“Is this your only evidence?” he inquired, holding up the paper. “I mean it’s not much.”
“But it is clear,” Liam said. “We think that Callum came to live here because of Desmond and that they were working on some sort of Dark Arts project when Desmond disappeared, or died, or whatever. It seems to have scared Callum away from being a wizard, at least for a period of time. He died as well, or at least disappeared, doing another magical experiment of some sort.”
Regulus leaned forward. “Do you know what they were working on? That’s probably what Voldemort is looking for. What could they have been doing that was worth dying for, even when Callum knew that his cousin had been killed?”
Liam shook his head. “That’s the thing, there’s almost nothing in this house, other than that piece of paper, that links to any sort of magic. It’s like Callum had some sort of secret laboratory where he did all this work. He had this double life, and that’s what killed him in the end.”
Regulus bit his lip and looked away.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to work out for the past few months,” Liam explained. “I don’t want to be like him. I want to understand the gift I have and use it to keep my family safe. I don’t want to be stuck in the shadows for the rest of my life. There’s too much I have to live for.”
“I don’t know how much help I’ll be in trying to find this place, mate,” Regulus admitted. “I mean, I’ve never met the man, but what I need to find will be there. Did he have any place, other than here, where he spent a lot of time?”
Liam shrugged. “Not that I know of. I mean, not that I can remember him taking me to. I’m happy to show you around here, though. What do you think he was working on?”
Regulus hesitated. “I don’t want to tarnish your view of your grandfather. I mean, I’m sure you really loved him and that he was a good man, but Voldemort seems to be interested in some dark things. He said that what he’s looking for is of personal interest, not related to other things the Death Eaters are doing, and it was conducted by a group of wizards in County Clare about a century ago. He said his lead was a man named Donnelly who moved to Clare eighty years ago. That doesn’t seem to fit our time table.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” mused Liam. “Wizards live longer than other people. The man I know who married Desmond’s daughter is in his fifties at least. I think that that would work out.”
“And Callum was just going back to research he had long ago abandoned when Desmond disappeared? It doesn’t seem like it would fit,” said Regulus.
“We won’t know until we check it out, and I’d rather know what he was doing. It’s part of my legacy, and helps explain who I am. I’d rather know that he made enemies and be able to prepare for them than be caught by surprise,” countered Liam.
Regulus nodded. “My research about Desmond Donnelly turned up a few things. He taught at Hogwarts briefly while Voldemort was there, some sort of assistant professor. He was a Slytherin obsessed with the Dark Arts and developing deadly potions; that’s why he was sacked. But he never published his work or really seemed to do anything of note.”
“So we’re probably looking for some kind of potions laboratory?”
Regulus agreed, “I guess, I mean, if Callum followed in Desmond’s footsteps. You say you know his son-in-law?”
“Fate does funny things,” replied Liam. “I ran into him a few months back in the middle of the night, and honestly completely lost all sense. He recognized my wand and was terrified, saying that I needed to come inside and did not know what I was dealing with. I erased his memories, later regretted it, but lo and behold he showed up at the shipyard. His name is Christopher Devon and he takes our boats in for repairs.”
“Did you realize the connection then?”
Liam shook his head. “No, not until I arranged for Aislinn and me to essentially ambush him into talking to us; actually, we took him to the same pub where we met you. Desmond disappeared when Devon’s wife was five years old. Her mother knew Desmond was a wizard, but did not realize that he was working in the Dark Arts. He was working with other wizards, including a young cousin, whom we believe to be our grandfather. Devon said that Callum backed out because he was scared. There was an explosion in Desmond’s workshop one day and he was never seen or heard from again. The interesting thing is that they still believe he’s alive.”
Regulus paled. “Voldemort believes that, too.”
“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Liam admitted. “It does sound like our stories match, though.”
“Do you think it would be worth talking to Devon again?”
“Maybe? He’s really skittish, and he’s said that he doesn’t have any contact with wizards at all,” offered Liam. “Then again, I’m fascinated that his immediate response to seeing a wand was to try to usher me into his daughter’s house. How is that a normal reaction?”
“It’s not,” Regulus agreed. “Can you remember anything else he said?”
It was a strain. Liam had trusted Devon’s story and it had been a while since he had thought of the man in a questioning light. Devon had been outside, he had called into the darkness when he saw the flash of light, he had exclaimed at the wand, and then invited Liam inside. Why would he just invite someone with a wand into his house if he had never met a wizard, and especially if he was afraid of magic and his father-in-law turning up again?
“He said he could explain everything if we were indoors. How could he explain everything if he’s never even met his father-in-law?”
Regulus smiled. “I don’t think he could. So what’s he trying to hide?”
“I just assumed that he was protecting his daughter. What if he’s more into this than he’s admitting?” Liam wondered. “Do you think he has Desmond’s old materials? Or knows who the good and bad wizards are in the area? If he knows so much about wizards in the area, how come he didn’t know about me?”
“This is an awful lot of questions,” said Regulus. “How do you propose we start?”
“I think we need some more evidence before we can confront him again,” Liam said. “We need to try to find my grandfather’s workshop, and we need to get some more information about wizards in County Clare. I think I know how we can accomplish that.”
Liam grinned. “How do you feel about double dates?”
Liam regretted that more than a month had passed since he met Meghan at the pub with Sean, but was glad when she agreed to his invitation for dinner and said that she would bring Lisa as well. The promise of the Donnelly mystery had completely taken his mind off of his social life. Even this meeting was more about furthering his quest than getting to know the girl, but he figured the quest was enough of a priority that it could be forgiven.
Regulus was nervous and Liam had to keep reminding him that the date aspect of the dinner was not the point. This seemed to help and Liam hoped that Regulus would be able to focus enough at dinner to ask the right questions without creating too much suspicion.
It would be a careful balance – trying to glean what Meghan and Lisa knew of magic without appearing too invested in their answers. The girls’ knowledge of magic seemed to be innocuous, but Liam was quickly discovering that it was not safe to assume anything where magic was concerned.
Liam and Regulus met Meghan and Lisa at half-past six the following night. They constructed several stories about their time at Hogwarts and enjoyed making them slightly more outrageous than necessary, entertaining the girls as they enjoyed their food. It was easier than Liam had anticipated and he decided to make the first move.
“So, Lisa, Meghan tells me that you have a cousin that you think might have gone to our school,” said Liam. “Anna maybe?”
Lisa nodded. “Yes, one of my younger cousins. She’s in the middle of her fifth year now. It seems like an interesting place.”
“How so?” Liam probed.
“Well, I think it has something to do with magic,” she replied carefully. “Not like tricks or anything, but, spells and potions, witches and wizards, that sort of thing.”
“What makes you think that?”
Lisa shrugged. “Not much, just a few things I’ve heard her say in passing. It’s not something we’ve really discussed as a family. Every time I try to get more information from her, she shuts me out, but, Meghan thought that your school might be the same as her school.”
“We didn’t say that specifically,” Meghan countered. “It’s just that the pieces seem to fit.”
“Do you believe in witches and wizards and magic?” Liam asked, attempting a bemused expression.
Lisa looked at Meghan briefly, then looked down before she replied, “You’re asking an awful lot of questions. I know it seems strange, but we really are somewhat serious.”
Liam apologised, “Sorry, we didn’t mean to interrogate you. We’re just curious if you’ve any other reason to think magic might be the root of Anna’s secret.”
Lisa sipped her ale for a few minutes, lacing condensation together with her fingertips. Finally, she offered, “One more reason. Anna’s boyfriend has come to visit a few times and he just seems, well, odd. Entirely different from anyone else I’ve met.”
Meghan agreed, “He has a way of convincing you to do things that seem like a novel idea at the time, but afterward you’re really not sure why you did them. This one time, I felt like it would be just wonderful to take a swim in the pond, forgetting that it was winter and that was a horrible idea. I felt like someone had muddled with my mind, and he was the only person around at the time.”
“This chap does sound a little odd,” Regulus agreed. “What does Anna see in him?”
“He’s older for one thing; he left school in June,” said Lisa. “And I think they lived in the same tower or something at the school. Plus, she doesn’t seem to notice everything. She loves him for his brilliance. They always seem to be sharing riddles with one another that I’ve never been able to decipher. Just the other night they were trying to work out some complicated riddle about a sphinx.”
Liam tilted his head. “He’s here in town? Now?”
Lisa nodded. “Well, yes, he’s been in town for about a week now. He showed up pretty suddenly; I don’t think even Anna knew that he was going to be around for the holidays. He’s been in and out of their house. Anna says he has some work business up in Ballyvaughan, though she’s never said exactly what he does.”
“What did you say his name was?” Regulus asked.
“I didn’t,” said Lisa. “His first name is Barty. Not sure about his surname.”
Regulus looked pale again. “Would you know it if I suggested one? Barty Crouch?”
Lisa furrowed her brow. “That might be it, though I can’t be completely sure. If you want me to check with her I will.”
“No!” Regulus exclaimed, probably too quickly. “No, don’t trouble yourself. He’s just someone I know. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.”
He gave Liam a piercing look and Liam took that as his cue to change the subject, wondering what was so significant about their Ravenclaw counterpart. They hadn’t interacted with Barty much in school, but he had never seemed to be troublesome. The rest of the night passed tediously as he waited for an opportunity to bid goodnight to the girls and head home.
When they were finally able to get away, Liam questioned, “What is so significant about Barty Crouch that we had to end that conversation?”
“Liam, he’s a Death Eater. We have to go to Ballyvaughan,” stated Regulus. “Barty is dangerous. I’m willing to bet a lot of Galleons he’s followed me on Voldemort’s orders.”
Liam’s mouth dropped open. “Bartemius Crouch Jr., a Death Eater? Isn’t his father one of the most serious opponents of the Dark Arts?”
“The very same. This is bad. Not many people know about me, but he’s one of them. We’ve been involved with several missions together, and he’s been suspicious of my loyalties in the past,” explained Regulus. “What if Voldemort sent him here to follow me? Barty knows about your family, even asked me about my friendship with you once; how long do you think it will be before he connects the dots and figures out where I am?”
Liam shook his head noiselessly; he knew that Regulus was right, and he was starting to panic. They had been reckless without even realising it, especially if Barty’s mission was determining Regulus’ loyalties.
“Do you think there’s any way that we can delicately figure out if he’s after you?” Liam wondered.
“My only thought is to check the inn at Ballyvaughan,” Regulus said. “The inn keeper said that he would keep any messages that may have come for me. Lisa said that Barty had been doing a lot of work up there. Perhaps he’s been searching hotels to figure out where I am.”
The plan seemed logical to Liam, so they decided to go. It did not take long to Apparate to Ballyvaughan and find the inn. The night was clear and they couldn’t see or hear anyone on the street. Regulus strode ahead of Liam, straight to the front desk.
“I’m not sure if you remember me, but I stayed here for a few days last week,” he stated.
“Yes, Mr. Black,” affirmed the inn-keeper. “I’ve been waiting for you to return. You left a package in your room.”
Regulus appeared surprised. “I did?”
The keeper nodded. “Yes, next to your night stand. One of the maids found it. Well, I have it right here and no other messages for you, so I was assuming that this was why you came. Was there another reason?”
“Oh, well, you’re right. Now that I think about it, I do remember leaving a package. I was really just calling to make sure that there were no messages left for me as I had told my mother to call here if she needed anything and forgot to update her on my whereabouts until today,” explained Regulus quickly. “I’ll take the package and hope that you have a good night.”
They stared at the package outside the inn, almost afraid to touch it.
“I don’t particularly want to open it,” Regulus admitted. “But I suppose we have to at some point.”
“Let’s open it at Callum’s house,” suggested Liam, and Regulus nodded an affirmation. They turned a corner into an alley and Apparated once again.
After verifying that Liam was ready with his wand, Regulus let out a deep sigh and slit the tape with a small knife. “Here goes.”
It’s been … more than two years. I know. I apologise. If it’s any consolation, I spent the last two of them as a newbie teacher, the one before that in graduate school, dated and became engaged to my fiancé, and moved halfway across the country. My goal is to finish “Heart of Gold” by the end of 2011, which marks the sixth year that I’ve been writing it. Stick with me a little longer; I promise, all of the answers are coming in just about three more chapters, which I am going to try to upload every few weeks until they are done.
Many thanks to Arnel, Cygnus, and Utterly Absurd for their beta skills and for sticking it out with me to the very end.